Do You Want Richard Dreyfuss Teaching Your Kids?

It’s hard to take issue with someone who is passionate about the teaching of civics and American history in our classrooms.  Apparently, actor-turned activist, Richard Dreyfuss even took a few years away from his acting career to study at Oxford in preparation for his non-profit campaign.  Dreyfuss is working on a video series that pulls together lectures from various scholars on civics and government as well as our responsibilities as citizens.  To promote this campaign Dreyfuss has hit the talk show circuit and has recently been interviewed by the likes of Bill Maher and Mike Huckabee.

Let me say again that I have nothing but the highest respect for this man’s commitment, but there are a few things that I am having difficulty with.  First, Dreyfuss seems to be driven by something akin to a savior complex.  You can see this in the videos news articles:

In May 2006, Dreyfuss had lunch with an old friend, Bob Tankard, an all-island school committee member and former school principal. “We’ve known each other for more than 20 years,” says Tankard. “We always talked about changing the world. Years ago I told Richard that he should give up acting and go into education or politics, but he said he needed to pay the bills.” Over lunch the two men caught up on each other’s lives and discussed modern democracy. They agreed that the role of civics had been forgotten and that schools needed to reinstate a civics curriculum from kindergarten through high school. “That’s when Richard reminded me that I had urged him to change professions,” Tankard says. “He told me he was ready to make the leap.”

I have no doubt that Dreyfuss has been warmly welcomed by the teaching community, but do we really need him to promote civics education in our schools?  Do we need to be saved by Dreyfuss and his video series?  And if we do, from what exactly?  I can’t help but think that we’ve returned to the old argument that this generation of students is fundamentally different from previous generations.  Supposedly, they know and care less than their parents and far less than their grandparents about government and history.  Something along these lines is implied in Dreyfuss’s justification for a renewed civics education.  At times he sounds like one of these conservative broken records who laments on the loss of civil discourse or a point in American history that was pre-partisan – a golden age of American democracy.

The notion that this generation of students knows less than their elders or that the state of history education has been in free fall for the last few decades is absolute nonsense.  Contrary to Dreyfuss, our politicians have rarely, if ever, risen above political partisanship and I suspect that our citizenry is just as gullible and ignorant as in any other time in the past.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to send these people back in time to the 1790s for that heavy dose of civil discourse that they so dearly crave?  Until then, I recommend that Dreyfuss read Joanne Freeman’s Affiars of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic (Yale University Press, 2002).  Perhaps Dreyfuss has played one too many sleazy politican or perhaps he has spent too many hours watching MSNBC, FOX, etc., which masquerade as serious news channels that pretend to engage in civil discourse.  Actually, I don’t even think they pretend.

Dreyfuss is right about one thing.  We do need to teach our students how to think critically and ecourage them to become what I prefer to call healthy skeptics.  We want our students to think through complex questions not simply as Republicans or Democrats or as participants in some reality show, but as “thinking beings.”  I’ve always thought that my most important responsibility is to teach my students to think – the content is secondary.  Let’s face it, most of my students will forget much of what they are taught, but they can use the analytical skills throughout their lives.

So, welcome aboard Mr. Dreyfuss.  You’ve put your finger on one of the fundamental challenges facing history/civics teachers.  Now take a seat, breathe, and notice that we’ve been at this for a long time now.  Best of luck to you.

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17 comments… add one
  • David L. Wiseman Jun 5, 2009 @ 7:08

    My first response upon reading this blog and it’s several responses was to question why some take such umbarge at the audacity and naivete of a fledgling pedagogue. However, upon further reflection and after reading Kevin’s succinct restatement of his original point I will make this comment. Mr. Dreyfuss has identified a problem, whether rightly or not, with teaching civics and government and he has proposed a solution. So let him bring his product to market and the free market will determine whether or not his product is needed. The quality of his product, not his celebrity will determine it’s value and future contribution.

    Of the second point I say we will not lose sight of those who have and continue to toil with passion. However, we are not the ones of which the masses are aware. Now that is a problem the solution of which is needed. Any takers?

  • Mike Jun 5, 2009 @ 6:58

    It is quite nice to see so many speak out against this nonsense.

  • John Buchanan Jun 5, 2009 @ 6:26

    If we want to have a multimedia event for teaching civics then all we nee to do is use School House Rock! Every single time I teach the Citizenship in the Nation Merit Badge in Boy Scouts and the guys can’t remember the Preamble and it significance, I hum the opening bars to this video. Without fail they start to sing it.

    This was such a great program.

    And then I start humming the I’m Just A Bill Song….easiest way for them to get it. Our school system uses all of these.

    • Kevin Levin Jun 5, 2009 @ 6:38


      They are classics and quite effective.

      At the same time I was struck by Dreyfuss’s agenda, which as I mentioned in the post includes some kind of video series. Most history/civics videos that I’ve seen are disasters. What I don’t understand is why Dreyfuss is interested in videos at all; as far as I am concerned they are “old school.” Let’s have students take advantage of Web2.0 technology and let them be citizens. It’s the difference between passive and active learning.

  • Ben Jun 5, 2009 @ 2:34

    It is definitely true that some people who have risen to the highest ranks of their professions tend to think that their exceptionalism can be generalized to other fields as well. Entertainers are certainly the most visible example because they have the media’s ear, but it happens in most fields.

    We used to elect military leaders on a very regular basis, but now the trend seems to be toward actors (Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Frankin, Thompson.) This seems crazy to me, but I’m just as unhappy with the endless stream of lawyers and businesspeople who take those seats normally.

    What background really prepares one for public service?

    • Kevin Levin Jun 5, 2009 @ 2:46


      I agree that we would be hard pressed to come up with a set of necessary and sufficient conditions that would render one eligible for public service. This is why I sincerely wish Dreyfuss all the luck in the world. The only point I was really making is that it’s not even clear that there is a problem that needs to be solved. The other point is that we should not lose sight of the fact that there are a lot of people who care passionately about these questions and who are toiling day in and day out in their classrooms. So, once again, welcome aboard Mr. Dreyfuss. Take a seat and we will be with you…hmm…at some point.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Alex Yepiz Jun 5, 2009 @ 0:09

    I wish actors would do something for all of us…Act.

    I’m sick of the Sean Penn’s, Alex Baldwin’s, and Richard Dreyfuss’. These guys seem to think that their opinion matters more than those of us dealing with the real issues of everyday life. It’s like an Intellectual historian telling a Social Historian that he/she knows social history better than him/her.

    In other words, you do your job, let us do ours.

  • Larry Cebula Jun 4, 2009 @ 23:01

    Folks create an imagined past and wield it as a cudgel to beat their political enemies.

  • John Wood Jun 4, 2009 @ 19:50


    How about a few more walking sticks for Preston Brooks to continue to lay into Dreyfuss. To hell with pistols let Dreyfuss and Billy Bob Thornton duel with double barrel shotguns

  • Vicki Jun 4, 2009 @ 17:14

    All together now,

    “Ma, Ma, where’s my Pa? Gone to the White House. Ha! Ha! Ha!”

  • Gordon Jun 4, 2009 @ 11:46

    God help us if Dr. Dreyfuss and Professor Billy Bob Thornton get together…

  • Greg Rowe Jun 4, 2009 @ 8:26

    And over here, we Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton. Gentlemen, please check your deuling pistols with the doorman.

  • Kevin Levin Jun 4, 2009 @ 6:10

    Mr. Dreyfuss, allow me to introduce you to Congressman Preston Brooks.

  • Michaela Jun 4, 2009 @ 5:44

    This is hilarious. It is like an actor wanting to become a scientist to show us that we are missing the bigger picture and are not thinking of the whole human being. Or the lawyer that plays the piano and thinks he is Thelonious Monk because he “thinks of Jazz from a different perspective”…you get the idea. I think that the mailman would never be so presumptuous and talk about another profession like that. People that get a disproportionally high reimbursement for their time at work have a tendency to think of themselves as more capable than they actually are.

  • Mike Jun 4, 2009 @ 5:31

    Nothing like an actor trying to influence education. May the Good Lord have Mercy on us all.

  • Gordon Jun 4, 2009 @ 4:53

    Take Dreyfuss back in time and have him ask Andy Jackson about “civil discourse.” I think “Old Hickory” would have taken him to the woodshed and then shot him.

  • Ben Jun 4, 2009 @ 3:55

    I always get a kick out of people who make claims about how “civil” political discourse used to be…this is a funny justification for a renewed focus on history education, as it reveals that the complainant himself has no grasp of history.

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